An exclusive interview with Christophe Schilling, CEO of Genomatica

Christophe Schilling, CEO of Genomatica

Christophe Schilling founded Genomatica in 1998. Since being named CEO in May 2009, he has led Genomatica to widespread recognition as a leader in industrial biotech, with a commercialized first process and plant and multiple leading partners. The company has earned awards for industry impact (recognized in ICIS Top40 Power Players five years in a row), engineering (Kirkpatrick), science (EPA Presidential Green Chemistry), industry leadership (voted #1 Hottest four years in a row by Biofuels Digest), and company culture (The Scientist as a Best Place to Work). Christophe is Chairman of Biocom, the largest advocate organization for California’s life sciences sector; serves on BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section Governing Board; serves on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Biotechnology; and is a member of YPO, an international leadership organization for chief executives. In this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista, he talks about the recent agreement with Covestro and the Genomatica’s way towards the bioeconomy.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

The recent agreement with Covestro confirms the strategic role of Genomatica in the transition towards the bio-based economy. What are the next steps in your business?

First, develop and deliver additional commercial technologies. Second, build more partnerships, including with licensees, major brands and sustainability-focused organizations. And third, share our perspective more widely about the multiple ways biotechnology can accelerate a transition to a more circular economy.

What is the status of your efforts in 1,4-butanediol, butylene glycol and caprolactam?

For BDO: Genomatica’s technology is now touching many consumers, especially in Europe. Novamont’s plant in Bottrighe, which uses our GENO BDO™ process technology in a 30,000 ton per year capacity plant, has been operating since September 2016.

Our Brontide™ brand butylene glycol is commercial and off to a great start. In January 2019 we announced we produced over 600 tons in just a few weeks, which is significant for its applications in personal care and cosmetics. This industry, and notably a fast-growing set of formulators, brands, and millennial customers, are delighted to have a naturally-sourced glycol, made via a safe fermentation process, to replace petroleum-based BG that starts with the carcinogenic chemical acetaldehyde. We’re already seeing novel applications that take advantage of our performance, including Nohbo’s shampoo drops, which eliminate packaging waste.

Caprolactam continues to be a lightning rod for brands that are excited for the potential to easily transition to 100% bio-based nylon-6 carpet and apparel. We announced our partnership with Aquafil in January 2018 and our involvement in Project EFFECTIVE in May 2018, with a dozen partners including H&M, Vaude, Balsan and Carvico and supported in part by the EU’s Horizon2020 program. We’re making great progress on the technology.

What are the ingredients that led to the success of Genomatica from your point of view?

I’ll point to three things. First, we’ve always focused on being very real. We try to be conservative in our comments and avoid hype. That’s why, for example, you didn’t hear anything about our butylene glycol until we were already shipping real product to customers. We think this is essential for building credibility in this industry, and we’re seeing the benefits of that now in how partners and prospects actively comment that they like how we approach business and they trust us.

Second, is that we pay attention to the details. That means our technology really needs to work in the real world, at commercial scale, to customer expectations, and with solid economics. That sets a high bar. And it’s particularly important if you’re licensing technology – your customers won’t sign off and pay you unless you meet specific performance criteria. You’ll recall that Novamont publicly confirmed they had signed off on our technology shortly after they started their plant, which was consistent with both companies’ expectations about timing and performance.

Third is company culture and teamwork. We’ve built a strong culture and invest continually to nurture it – it’s not something we take for granted. Our company’s core values include that we are “united” in spirit and “relentless” in pursuit of our objectives. Our values have gotten us through tough times and allow us to celebrate both individual and team achievements.

What advice would you give to a startup in the industrial biotech today?

One: identify something distinctive where you believe you can be best in the world and have the potential to build a business. Two: get customers involved early. Three: focus!

Worldwide we are witnessing a great movement against plastic waste. What role can bioplastic play in this context, from your point of view?

Plastic can be a great thing, for example in preserving food and reducing shipping weights – but also present great problems. Biology, including bioplastics technology and products, can help in many ways. First, by using renewable feedstocks to make bioplastics, we are, as an industry, reducing environmental footprint. Second, an increasing number of applications can leverage compostable plastics, and these are doubly-beneficial when sourced renewably. These bioplastics, like Novamont’s MaterBi, work particularly well when there is infrastructure to take full advantage of the product benefits. For example, Europe has many cities with well-developed and convenient composting options for homeowners – that means that compostable shopping bags will in fact decompose. Third, bioplastics can have enhanced performance characteristics, such as a thinner, lighter bottle that works as well as traditional ones. That means less potential waste. And fourth, we think biology has the potential to develop new solutions for end-of-life, to break products down to their raw ingredients and fully upcycle them to create new materials. We’re very interested in this area.

In an interview with Il Bioeconomista two and a half years ago you identified 4 milestones the chemical industry should have achieve in the following 5 years: “First, develop ways to describe environmental footprints, but extending across downstream product value chains. Second, set goals for improving that. Third, increase collaboration with brand owners and retailers so they are aware of when, where and how they can leverage the sustainability of biobased ingredients and to be responsive to their needs. And fourth, improve the industry’s “economic resilience” by using biotech strategically, to diversify feedstocks, and to avoid large cyclical swings in regional capacity, price and profits”. What is the situation in the middle of the path?

Wow, it’s really interesting to revisit my words of a few years ago; thank you. Overall, I think the industry is making progress against these four milestones, but I’ll never feel like it’s moving as fast as I’d like to see. On the first milestone, we see more companies publishing lifecycle analysis studies. We’ve done these for BDO and Brontide and have estimates for other products we’re working on. For the second milestone, of setting goals, I’d point to the sustainability and social responsibility reports that many companies are now publishing annually, and the aggressive targets being set by many major brands. Third, I can say that we’ve notably increased our outreach to and discussions with brands. Just this month we held a meeting with a dozen well-known brands to discuss how biotech fits within their objectives and how we can jointly accelerate a transition to more sustainable value chains. The fourth milestone has probably seen the least visible results so far. While we know of many firms that are considering major investments in biobased chemicals, we haven’t seen as many publicized commitments to new plants as I would have preferred. We have come to realize that we may increasingly be able to lead new initiatives in these areas. Let’s see what the next two years bring!

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